Addison Russell’s last game with the Chicago Cubs was on August 2nd at Wrigley Field. Since then, the lineup and playing time decisions have looked a lot different.
By that, I mean the every-day time dedicated to Javy Baez at shortstop has had trickle-down effects on the rest of the order, perhaps to the greatest benefit, surprisingly, of Jon Jay.
With Baez as the everyday shortstop, Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ have seen extra time at second base. That, in turn, has left more opportunities in the outfield in general, and especially when the Cubs face a lefty, as Maddon has been reluctant to put Happ or Kyle Schwarber in against southpaws.
So, since August 3rd, Jay has appeared in 35 of the Cubs 37 games, primarily in left or center field, including 26 total starts. And in every one of his 26 starts except one, Jon Jay was the Cubs’ leadoff man (and it’s fair to wonder if he would’ve gotten even more starts, had there been more than just two team off-days).
That level of playing time is fairly unbelievable, or, at least, it would’ve felt that way at the beginning of the year. Of course it didn’t feel all that strange when it started, right? Up until August 3, Jay was slashing a fantastic .301/.393/.388 (110 wRC+), with the sort of contact and on-base skills you’d absolutely love out of a leadoff hitter. The decision to make him a regular leadoff man at that point was wholly justified.
Unfortunately, the success he was experiencing in limited duty disappeared quickly as he was no longer matchup protected, among other things. In 132 plate appearances since August 3, Jay has slashed just .250/.336/.328, which is good for a 78 wRC+. His walk rate has sunk to 8.3%, and he’s hitting for less power than ever (.078 ISO).
His leadoff numbers are a little bit better when there’s been a lefty on the mound (83 wRC+), but that’s still 17% below average and, obviously, Jay naturally gets fewer opportunities against lefties than righties, against whom he’s hit even worse (75 wRC+). Jay has still managed to succeed as a pinch-hitter during this stretch (100 wRC+), but even that is a far cry from his numbers as a leadoff hitter before August 3 (134 wRC+).
I’m not blaming Joe Maddon for this move, of course. I’ve obviously been quite vocal about my desire to get Kyle Schwarber in the lineup more often lately, but the Cubs needed a leadoff hitter and at the time Jay was hitting really, really well (not to mention his skill-set fit the role reasonably well, including how many pitches he sees). On top of that, Schwarber had just started to turn a corner (136 wRC+ starting from his return from Triple-A to August 2nd), and no one wanted to mess with that success – least of all by trying him in the leadoff role again.
What I am saying is that it may be time to try something different once again. Maddon can only play with the cards he’s been dealt, but Jay has proven much more valuable in a more supplemental/matchup-oriented role, so perhaps it’s time to wind his usage back down. And given that he struggles against righties, but succeeds against lefties (while other outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ do the exact opposite), it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out how.
Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long to see if Maddon agrees, because the Cubs are scheduled to face five consecutive righties starting tonight against the Mets. Given that the latter two games come against the second-place Cardinals, this is one change I’d like to see implemented sooner than later.
Interestingly, Jay is not playing tonight, as Ben Zobrist will leadoff, and Kyle Schwarber is back in the lineup.